Meghna Gulzar’s Sam Bahadur is a respectful, at times cheeky, biopic of former Chief of the Army Staff Sam Manekshaw. Vicky Kaushal plays the legendary soldier with an I-say-chaps bluffness that’s dipped in ironclad confidence and marinated in Canteen Stores Department whiskey.
The 150-minute film spans several decades beginning in the 1930s, pausing to consider the story behind Manekshaw’s birth name, the source of his nickname and his brief courtship of his future wife Silloo (Sanya Malhotra). With his wheatish complexion and Punjabi manner (Manekshaw was raised in Amritsar), the film’s hero is Parsi only in name. Parsi dishes – all eight of them – are mentioned, while Parsi women wear gara saris. But that’s just about all in terms of depicting India’s first Zoroastrian Army chief.
The movie gives a better sense of Manekshaw’s mien. Infectiously convivial, twinkly-eyed even when staring at battle formations, and with purpose in his every stride, Manekshaw appears fully formed right from when he enrols in the British Army, where he earns the first of many medals that will be pinned on his uniform.
Manekshaw’s inexorable ascent is marked by cross-border conflicts and occasional political wheeling-dealing (Elango Kumaravel has a nifty cameo as VK Krishna Menon). Keen on avoiding the debacle of the 1962 Sino-Indian War, Manekshaw provides the leadership that helps India win its 1971 war with Pakistan, which resulted in the birth of Bangladesh.
Gulzar’s screenplay, written with Bhavani Iyer and Shantanu Srivastava, has a little bit of everything and nothing about any one thing in particular. Among the stronger themes is Manekshaw’s pride in the Indian Army’s secular ethos, its tradition of valour, and his firm opposition to political interference in military decisions.
Just when Sam Bahadur appears to be making too much of Manekshaw swatting away ignorant ministers or insensitive bureaucrats, the 1971 war looms on the horizon. An entertaining sideshow at this point is provided by Manekshaw’s equation with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, which is crackling enough to earn gentle complaints from Silloo.
When Sam Met Indira the movie isn’t, but the inclusion of the frisson between dutiful soldier and messianic leader is a welcome addition to a mostly stodgy narrative.
When Manekshaw asks Gandhi (Fatima Sana Shaikh), who has taken over from her father Jawaharlal Nehru (Neeraj Kabi), if she needs a shoulder to cry on, or when he addresses her as “Madam Prime Minister”, there is unmistakeable flirtatiousness. There is also the most forthright expression of an Army chief unafraid to stand up to power.
In these moments, as well as the scenes at Manekshaw’s home, where a crotchety Tamilian orderly treats his boss with scant respect, we get an excellent sense of a time when it was possible to be genuine, irreverent and outspoken. Vicky Kaushal even plays Manekshaw like a young Dev Anand, with his affability sheathed in the bluntness of the hard-core soldier.
Kaushal’s debonair ways enliven a biopic that has the back-thumping and crease-flattening attitude typical of the official account. However, Kaushal’s charm offensive isn’t enough to keep Sam Bahadur on track.
The greatest hits approach leans on recorded history rather than compelling fiction for dramatic momentum. Archival footage supplements, and even eclipses, the pedestrian battlefield sequences. Filmed scenes of the actual Indira Gandhi do no favours to Fatima Sana Shaikh, whose prime minister wears creased saris and the perturbed manner of a woman on a blind date.